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Repost: Eunice Newton Foote, 1800s American Climate Scientist
This article was first published in 2022, and is now reposted for a wider audience.
In this Deep Dive, I’d love to share the story of a fascinating figure in the history of science, and in the idea of the “Anthropocene” in particular: Eunice Newton Foote. She’s topical for this newsletter because she independently came up with the idea of carbon dioxide-caused climate change in the 1800s, decades before that became widely discussed among scientists. The greenhouse effect was first widely described and became “common scientific knowledge” when it was quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and the impact of humans’ CO2 emissions was established by Charles David Keeling in the 1960s. However, Eunice Newton Foote made similar deductions in the 1850s based on her own independent experiments, well before it was a major research subject and with barely any publicity or discussion around these ideas at the time. Also, being the kind of person who independently theorized about climate change decades ahead of anyone else, she’s a really interesting person, and more people should know about her life.
Eunice Newton Foote
Pictured above: an artist’s impression of Eunice Newton Foote in her laboratory. No authenticated portrait of her exists.
In 1856, while Franklin Pierce was President of the United States (doing a terrible job, with the Fugitive Slave Act and “Bleeding Kansas” pushing towards the Civil War), an extraordinary woman in Seneca Falls, New York, was advancing human knowledge in her home laboratory.
Eunice Newton Foote was a pioneering women’s rights advocate and physicist who in 1856 used an ingenious set of experiments with glass cylinders and different gases to evaluate how given gases trap heat. She filled each of two glass cylinders with different gases and a thermometer (at the time, that was cutting-edge science equipment) and noted how their temperatures changed differently in response to sunlight. She noted that moist air held more heat than cool air, foreshadowing water vapor’s key role in regulating Earth’s temperature. Even more impressively, she noticed that the tube filled with carbon dioxide (called “carbonic acid gas” at the time) became much hotter than tubes filled with hydrogen or oxygen under otherwise identical conditions.
Eunice Newton Foote’s 1856 paper on these results, Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun's Rays, published in the American Journal of Science and Arts, was the first-ever record of humanity understanding that carbon dioxide could trap heat in the atmosphere. (Pictured above in its entirety). Her paper went from excellent to truly inspired with the addition of a sentence extending her results’ implications to the entire planet, predicting that CO2 could (and has in the past) cause global warming.
“An atmosphere of that gas [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion [of CO2] than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.”
-Eunice Newton Foote, Circumstances affecting the Heat of the Sun's Rays
However, in addition to the historical significance of the results, this paper was pretty significant at the time because of its author alone. This was the first-known scientific journal publication on physics published by woman! There was an article in Scientific American at the time about the novelty of the existence of a physics paper published by a woman, not the paper itself. Furthermore, this paper plus another of Foote’s papers, an 1857 work on static electricity, were the only two papers on physics published by an American woman before 1889, and two of only sixteen before 1900. She was truly ahead of time, to an almost astonishing degree.
Some readers who have made a study of the history of climate science might be wondering where John Tyndall comes in, the man currently in most textbooks as the first to discover that CO2 can trap heat in the atmosphere. Well-known British scientist John Tyndall, in his 1859 and 1861 papers, essentially replicated Foote’s results but with one major addition of knowledge: given his better-funded lab, he could afford the equipment to investigate infrared radiation, and was unquestionably the first scientist to differentiate the role of infrared radiation in transferring heat. However, he presented himself as having been the first person to discover the role of carbon dioxide in absorbing heat, which he clearly was not, and received massive acclaim for it: a climate science institute is still named after him today. Some modern scientists attentive to Tyndall’s memory argue that he might not have ever seen Newton Foote’s paper, but the evidence seems pretty damning.
First, the circumstantial evidence is strong: Tyndall was known for both failing to cite American researchers (who were widely disrespected in Europe at the time) and coming across as extremely sexist and dismissive of women’s intellectual capacity even by the low standards of the 1850s. Furthermore, there’s a smoking gun in the timeline: Tyndall was the editor of a British scientific journal that in 1856 chose to republish a paper by Elisha Foote that ran opposite his wife’s landmark work in the same journal, so he was essentially certain to have seen it, then chose not to publish it, then a few years later published his own, highly publicized take on the work without mentioning Newton Foote. It really, really looks like Tyndall knowingly and deliberately, with malice aforethought, stole the credit for the idea that would lead to the title “Father of Climate Science.” (Although he set up his experiments differently instead of copying her setup directly, so maybe not, it’s still controversial. Also, to be fair, Tyndall did definitely make a lot of radiant heat-related discoveries by himself: he certainly had the intellectual capacity to do the work even if he used others’ ideas without credit).
Nonetheless, the point remains: as Rosalind Franklin was to the discovery of DNA, Eunice Newton Foote was to the dawn of climate science: the female pioneer whose pathbreaking results were pirated, tweaked, and unacknowledged by men who went on to claim all the credit.
However, Eunice herself might have viewed her climate science work as just one interesting episode in a rich and varied career. Even if she had never made groundbreaking scientific discoveries, her life would be remembered as extraordinary. She and her husband Elisha Foote attended the landmark 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the world’s first woman’s rights convention that essentially launched the American feminist movement. Eunice was one of the leaders of the event: she was the fifth of 100 signatures on its historic Declaration of Sentiments (a then-shocking formal demand for the right to vote and equal legal rights) and a member of the editorial committee for the declaration, as well as the team of five who prepared it for publication. She was cited by Susan B. Anthony in a 1902 speech as one of the pioneers of the American feminist movement. Eunice Newton Foote also invented new models of cooking stove, skate, and paper-making machine, as one does.
She and Elisha had two daughters, Mary and Augusta, and raised them in their forward-thinking, unapologetically liberal values. Mary cofounded the St. Louis School of Design, continued her mother’s suffragette work, married John B. Henderson (the US senator who coauthored the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery), and became an early advocate of vegetarianism. Augusta wrote The Sea-Beach at Ebb-Tide, which essentially founded the field of intertidal biology in the United States, influenced a generation of American naturalists, and was later cited by the great Rachel Carson. Eunice Newton Foote’s legacy lived on.
And now, starting in 2011 and proceeding rapidly, Eunice Newton Foote’s role as the founder of climate science has been rediscovered. She has gained more and more belated but profoundly deserved public acclaim, including lots and lots of popular articles and new institutional recognition: in 2022, the American Geophysical Union announced the creation of the Eunice Newton Foote Medal for Earth-Life Science. That’s a pretty extraordinary story!